Building a good credit history wasn't Melissa Murissi's top priority when she applied for a Chase Manhattan card at a student recruitment drive last December.
"Mostly, I did it for the bonus that I got," said the 22-year-old Queens College senior. In her case, the bonus was a yearly planner chosen from an array of candy, books, and thermoses.
Getting the card was no hassle, since valid student identification was the only requirement for approval.
While Ms. Murissi said she was knowledgeable about the risks and benefits of credit - she knew, for example, that her payment record could be accessible to potential employers - critics said the ease with which she obtained her card illustrates the need to monitor closely the relationships between issuers and college students.
"I defy you to go to any college campus and talk to students for 10 minutes," said Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America, a consumer group in Herndon, Va. "You will find that they or someone they know will have (credit) problems."
While credit card issuers like to write off such evidence as merely "anecdotal," Ms. Susswein said she thinks there is too much evidence to dismiss it.
"Students are being targeted for plenty of unsecured credit," she said, "and yet not enough effort goes into making sure they will be valuable customers."
The credit card associations, not surprisingly, dispute that characterization, saying their dealings with college students are responsible and above-board.
"College students as a group happen to be one of the most responsible users of credit cards," said Susan Murdy, vice president of public affairs for Visa. "While consumer groups may have anecdotal evidence otherwise, factually and statistically speaking, our claims are supported."
About 55% of college-age cardholders pay off their balances every month, according to a Roper College Track survey cited by Ms. Murdy, with nearly 85% of their bills paid by them and not their parents.
"People say they aren't old enough" to have a credit card, said Ms. Murdy. "Well, they're at least 18 years old, they can vote, serve in the Army, and it's their right under federal law" to obtain a credit card.
An effort begun last year aimed at changing that law has apparently fallen flat. Accusing banks of exploiting college students by letting them build up unmanageable credit balances, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, D-Mass., then chairman of the House Banking Committee's subcommittee on consumer credit and insurance, held hearings on a bill that would have required parental consent for credit card applicants younger than 21.
Committee members were reportedly upset at the ease with which college students obtained credit cards in light of difficulties encountered by other, more creditworthy groups.
"One of their frustrations was that widows and divorcees could not get credit cards, but their sons and daughters were getting them like candy," said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, an advocacy group in San Francisco.
The bill, which provoked a wave of anger from banks and credit issuers, was never introduced. After Republicans gained control of Congress, the subcommittee was folded into the panel on financial institutions and regulation, which has no plan to revive the bill.
"It is unlikely that Congress would support an intrusion into how a company markets its products," said Mr. McEldowney.
In a rare show of unity, both credit card supporters and watchdog groups reacted critically to the "parental consent" component of the Kennedy bill.
"Attempts to legislate safety here are misguided. That was one of them," said Stuart Feldstein, president of SMR Research Corp., based in Budd Lake, N.J. "There's a lot of worry about very little.
"Certain liberal Democrats - and I sometimes vote Democratic - have the idea that the rest of the American population other than themselves are irresponsible with credit," said Mr. Feldstein.
"Judging from the House's bank scandal, it's Congress and not their constituents that has the problem," he said.
Ms. Susswein of the cardholders group also dismissed the Kennedy proposal, labeling it "a dead issue.
"We never supported that," she said. "We felt that, if a student is old enough to enjoy the benefits of a credit card, they should have the responsibility. Making a parent responsible just keeps them a child."
Part of the reluctance to back such legislation is the realization that credit cards are a virtual necessity, even for college students, in today's increasingly cashless society.
"There is always a potential problem for abuse whenever you have something," said Larry Chiang, president of United College Marketing Services, an Oak Brook, Ill.-based company offering credit education on to college students.
"A hammer can be used to build a home, or harm someone," he said. "We see credit cards the same way."
Mark Wurzel, chief of staff for the Department of Consumer Affairs in New York City, noted that students have a lot of "front-loaded expenses," with tuition and book costs both due at about the same time.
"They may not have the available cash to cover this," he said. "Credit cards offer students a payment schedule as a reasonable financial alternative to paying bills immediately, with the cost spread out over billing."
Ms. Susswein has some less stringent proposals she would like to see enacted. She has recommended that a mandatory personal finance class be taught to all junior high school students, with part of the course focusing on credit education.
Any such curriculum change would be up to state legislatures, which have historically been reluctant to impose additional class requirements.
Ms. Susswein also called upon credit card issuers to offer "substantive" seminars on college campuses. Students wanting a credit card should be required to attend, she said.
Credit card companies, such as Visa, maintain that they are fulfilling their responsibilities in this area.
Supplementing its "Choices and Decisions: Taking Charge of Your Life" credit advisory program, which has been offered to high school students for four years, Visa recently ran a special campaign promoting credit card responsibility in youth-oriented publications, such as Rolling Stone magazine.
"We said, basically, that with a credit card comes the responsibility of using it properly," said Ms. Murdy. "We noted that, if they had questions, they could call our 800 number, and we would send them our free brochure."
Similarly, MasterCard has been offering "Master Your Future," a credit education package, to high schools since 1993.
Some say efforts like these are more than enough. College students, after all, are adults, they say, and should not be portrayed as innocent victims in their dealings with credit companies.
"It's part of our culture that college students demand increasing amounts of freedom," said Warren Heller, research director of Veribanc, a bank-rating firm in Wakefield, Mass. "And these demands have largely been met.
"The flip side is, if they don't (act) wisely, they are generally required to be accountable," he said. "People are ultimately responsible for their own spending habits."
That is a philosophy that Melissa Murissi seemed to endorse.
"I think it would be definitely much more of a hassle," she said of the proposed credit seminar or added classes. "I think the reason students apply for credit cards is that it is so quick," she said. "If they had to go to a seminar, I think a lot would not apply. I know I wouldn't."